More felons gaining right to vote
Before Kimberly Haven set out to register voters this month, she checked Baltimore city records to find a neighborhood with a surprising feature: a large number of felons.
There, on a litter-strewn street corner, her team ran into Lonnell Burke, who was waiting to catch a bus to a local drug rehab center. With cocaine and armed burglary convictions, Burke assumed he was barred from the polls forever. But thanks to a recent change in Maryland law, he found himself signing papers to become a registered voter.
“I didn’t think the doors would ever open for ex-offenders to vote,” said Burke, 50, who called the unexpected encounter “a blessing.”
At least a dozen states have changed their laws since 2003 to allow more felons who are no longer in prison to cast ballots, reversing a long-standing trend.
And though studies show that felons lean Democratic, states led by Republican governors have loosened their voting rules, including Alabama, Nebraska, Nevada and Florida -- where officials have learned from the 2000 presidential race just how close an election can be.
States restored voting rights to about 760,000 felons in the last decade, according to tallies by voting rights groups, but data on how many have registered to cast ballots are sketchy. Whether these voters could tip an election in a presidential swing state is a matter of speculation.
But the new laws have produced aggressive registration drives this election season in the most unconventional of places -- soup kitchens, halfway houses, even Alabama state prisons.
“This is the first time in history that some of these places have ever seen this kind of civic activity,” said the Rev. Kenneth Glasgow, who served time in prison. He now heads an Alabama nonprofit faith-based organization and has led efforts to register the state’s current and former convicts.
Haven, 47, who is executive director of the group Justice Maryland, helped push the state to loosen its laws last year and now works to educate and register ex-offenders. She completed a prison sentence for white-collar crime in 2001.
The trend of restoring voting rights comes even while some states are adopting voter ID laws and other steps to ensure that only qualified voters cast ballots -- rules that critics say can disenfranchise some voters.
The push has been led largely by black community leaders who say the number of African Americans who remain stripped of their voting rights has become an indefensible civil rights issue. Even with the new laws, about 1 in 8 black men is barred from voting because of criminal convictions, advocacy groups say.
In some states, voting rights activists have been joined by evangelical Christian groups who argue that forgiveness plays an important role in rehabilitating criminals.
“We try to challenge the conservatives,” said Pat Nolan, vice president of Prison Fellowship, a conservative Christian justice reform group founded by Charles Colson, the former Nixon administration aide who was convicted of Watergate-related crimes. Nolan is a former state assemblyman from Glendale who served time in federal prison for racketeering. “Why, after someone has paid their debt, do we continue to punish them?”
According to advocacy groups, about 5.3 million Americans, or 1 in 41 adults, have lost their right to vote because of a felony conviction.
“The issue here is really if someone should have a permanent scarlet letter on them -- if there are certain offenses for which there is no redemption,” said Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen, who played a lead role in revising Tennessee’s voting law in 2006.
The suffrage laws vary by state and often by felony, with violent crimes incurring greater restrictions. Only two states -- Maine and Vermont -- permit voting by all felons, including those still in prison. California, along with states such as New York and Colorado, automatically reinstates voting rights to felons once they are released from prison and are off parole.
In little more than a decade, 18 other states have moved to enable more felons to vote. Three more, however, have gone the other way -- making their laws more restrictive.
“If you are not willing to follow the law, you can’t claim a right to make the law,” said Roger Clegg, president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank in Falls Church, Va. “Just because you have served your sentence and have earned your right to leave prison doesn’t mean that society has to forget about the fact that you have committed a serious crime.”
Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican, faced similar criticism from his own party when he pushed the state clemency board last year to restore the voting rights of about 120,000 felons who had finished their time in prison.
Voting against the changes was Florida Atty. Gen. Bill McCollum, a Republican who sits on the board with Crist. He cited the state’s high recidivism rates as reason to be cautious.
“I don’t view this as a political thing,” McCollum said. “A large part of my job is public safety. . . . I don’t want to restore any rights to somebody who is just going to walk right out the door and commit another crime.”
A more heated dispute has roiled Alabama. In 2003, the Democratic-led Legislature made it easier for felons to regain voting rights, though people convicted of any of 15 specific felonies involving “moral turpitude” -- including murder, rape, sodomy, child pornography and treason -- remained barred from the polls.
In 2005, the state’s Republican attorney general issued an opinion expanding the list of crimes. Last year, as activists geared up to register voters in state prisons, Gov. Bob Riley, a Republican, issued his own list of more than 400 crimes that showed moral turpitude, including disrupting a funeral and shoplifting.
In turn, the American Civil Liberties Union sued state election officials in July to force them to use only the Legislature’s list.
Although neither presidential candidate has reached out to felons who are eligible to vote, Barack Obama’s campaign educates its volunteers about relevant state laws, according to spokeswoman Jenny Backus.
The Illinois senator, a Democrat, co-sponsored a bill in 2007 that would allow felons who have completed their sentences to vote in federal elections. The legislation is still in committee.
Obama’s Republican opponent, John McCain, voted in 2002 against a measure that would have secured federal voting rights for certain felons. The Arizona senator has said he believes that voter restoration efforts should be conducted on a state level.
“He believes serious felonies should result in a permanent loss of voting rights and others should be looked at on a case-by-case basis,” said campaign spokesman Ben Porritt.
Without official support from either of the campaigns, nonprofit groups and activists have largely taken it upon themselves to usher as many felons to the polls as possible. Some say, however, that casting a ballot in November will be more about helping themselves than affecting the course of the election.
“This is about self-change,” said Jewell Young, 23, of Baltimore, who recently completed probation on drug charges and will be voting for the first time. “It isn’t always about the bigger picture.”
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Since 2003, the following states have moved to change their laws to enable more felons to vote: Alabama, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Rhode Island, Tennessee and Wyoming.
Iowa: In 2005, Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack issued an executive order automatically restoring the voting rights of all former felons.
Nebraska: In 2005, the Legislature repealed the lifetime voting ban on all felons and replaced it with a two-year post-sentence ban.
Rhode Island: In 2006, voters approved a referendum to amend the state constitution to restore voting rights to people on probation or parole.
In the last decade, three states -- Massachusetts, Kansas and Utah -- made laws on felon voting rights more restrictive.
Massachusetts and Utah: In 2000 and 1998, respectively, the states moved to strip voting rights from people incarcerated on felony charges. Previously, both states had allowed people to vote while in prison.
Kansas: In 2002, the Legislature added probationers to the category of excluded felons.
Source: The Sentencing Project